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Avenging the nerds- the beauties of pi and Splash

Can we use the symbol for pi? --mg

Column/Adam Braff

Ah, precocious youth. Smart little boys and girls used to be my pet peeve, along with spunky old people. Not that I've outgrown stereotyping entirely -- I'm still not too crazy about the spunky old people. But my hardline stance against the Talented and Gifted has softened since Saturday.

The story of my mellowing began at Central Junior High School. In my second year at CJHS, and for reasons lost to history, I memorized the first 100 digits of pi. (This is relevant because I have found that the best way to chart the development of a gifted student is to follow his relationship with that most famous of irrational numbers.) Yes, I committed this incredibly useless trivium to memory -- indeed, to the part of the mind which normal boys used to memorize batting averages -- and sealed my fate by spending the next four summers at a Johns Hopkins program called the Center for Advancement of Academically Talented Youth. Some of you out there, no doubt CTY alumni, are cringing as you read this. We all have embarrassing pasts.

In my rookie CTY summer, I found a support group of sorts. A boy from New Jersey had memorized twice as much pi as I. Now, I'm not even going to pretend that what we did that summer was perfectly normal, because it wasn't. We stood on a stage and took turns reciting digits of pi in front of 200 other losers. Outstanding. When you're looking for reasons not to like me, this one is beautiful.

Back home, nobody knew about my exploits at the CTY talent show. The Number lay dormant in my brain until my senior year at Greenwich High School. A few of my friends and I had exhausted the math curriculum, which meant we had to take some mutated version of 18.01 or 18.02 while still in high school. This sort of social climbing can stunt a person's conversational skills; we ended up, one day, arguing whether e to the i-times-pi power was one, as my moronic friend insisted, or negative one, as I insisted. (How an equation could inspire such spite is beyond my comprehension, let alone pathetic and frightening.) We wagered a porkchop. I don't know why. The teacher came in, did some figuring for us on the board, and proved me right. The next day, my cowering friend entered the room and laid a frozen porkchop in a baggie at my feet.

After I had seen this -- the power of pi to bring me meat -- I faltered, fearing what the number could do if used inappropriately. At parties when top-heavy women would wrap a leg around mine and ask me to whisper pi in their ears, I would decline. Pi is not a party trick, I thought. Pi is a monumental educational tool. I said a few digits of e to these temptresses and sent them away.


Back to reality. Last weekend, the MIT Educational Studies Program held its second annual "Splash," which ESP's brochure describes as a "weekend-long extravaganza of lectures, workshops, and seminars for students in grades seven through twelve." Almost 300 kids, most of them precocious, came to MIT to study courses with titles like Make a Needle Lift a Barbell and Zen Buddhism, Part 1. More importantly, a man named Todd Barber G taught a class called All About the Number Pi.

When I found out a week ago that Todd was going to spread the gospel of pi, I hesitantly volunteered that I had been personally involved with The Number for quite some time. The nature of our relationship was somehow revealed, leaving Todd to invite me to his lecture and grace the kids with a recital of the first 100 digits. Not an accomplished public speaker, I declined at first. After Todd twisted my arm a bit ("for the children, Adam," and so on) I agreed. I may be a geek, but I am not without a soul.

On Saturday he called me at 8:43 am and told me where his class was meeting.

At 10:30 I woke up, realized I had taken a phone call in my sleep, and ran to my obligation. A room full of precocious children and Todd looked up as I entered, unshaven and mean. I believe I scared them. But as the digits began to float from the recesses of my brain to their young ears, I saw a transformation take place. Not in them -- they weren't the least bit impressed. It was I who transformed. These kids weren't mere glasses-wearing, shampoo-lacking, shirt-tucked-in-and-buttoned-up-high losers. They were just bright students who had come to MIT for the day because they genuinely wanted to learn. It wasn't a religious experience or anything; I just thought of myself and these kids and was glad we had come together to perpetuate education in general and this quirky little number in particular.

The next day I went to Splash's makeshift office in the Infinite Corridor and spoke with Steve Worley '90, the chairman of ESP. I told him what I had done and seen the day before.

"You're right," he said. "As opposed to high school, where the kids are told what to take, Splash lets them take what they want. It's the best way to choose a class of students -- they have to be interested, because they chose the course themselves."

ESP, which has been around for 30 years now, started Splash last fall. In its first year, the program drew 130 students from the Boston area and from as far away as California. Part of the reason the program's enrollment doubled this year was the large number of positive reviews from the 7th through 12th graders who let themselves be enriched.

"We have not had a single negative comment," Worley said, "except for the student who complained there were only 80 courses, or the one who said it should take place every month instead of annually. The parents loved the idea."

I asked him how he had gotten parents involved in the program.

"We haven't," he said. "We physically yank the parents away from their kids, because some of the parents seem to want to do the choosing. We want the students to take what they want, not what their parents want."

Who were these souls, I asked, who did the yanking and the teaching? Were they paid for their troubles?

"No," he said. "The purpose of ESP is to give the MIT community -- students and teachers -- a low-risk opportunity to teach. Some of them want to be teaching assistants, and some of them just want to teach a class about physics or comic books, something they know well. We're always on the lookout for teachers for Splash and the High School Studies Program." (ESP's springtime project, HSSP, is a 10-week program similar to Splash.)

Seeing younger students learn about esoterica is inspirational. If the United States is to regain its intellectual status in a world dominated by Europeans and Asians, we Americans must start before college. I'm not coming out in favor of eighties-style high-intensity preschools. What I'd like to see is a preponderance of programs like Splash -- an opportunity for precocious kids outside of Connecticut and Massachusetts to excel in whichever field they like. I was lucky, in painful retrospect, to have been given a chance to flaunt my pi fetish among students of the same ilk.


Adam Braff, a junior in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is a columnist for The Tech. He was in the Greenwich Public School System's Talented and Gifted program for six years, an experience which has left him with irreversible emotional damage.

After I had seen this -- the power of pi to bring me meat -- I faltered, fearing what the number could do if used inappropriately. Pi is not a party trick, I thought.

After I had seen this -- the power of pi to bring me meat -- I faltered, fearing what the number could do if used inappropriately. Pi is not a party trick, I thought.